Primary Sources and Social Change in the industrial revolution

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KAREN BROADBENT                        10/05/2007


Primary Sources and Social Change

The impact of the Industrial Revolution on the standard of living of working class people is, and has been frequently debated.  There is a mass of primary and secondary sources of evidence from the time of the Industrial Revolution available to support differing views of the debate, and there are also many novels available that were written at the time which criticise industrial society, but the difficulty of assessing the total impact of industrialisation upon a population, is how to measure the changes in standard of living.  We can look at changes in wages, the changing cost of food, rent and clothing, the impact of the factory systems, or the demographic changes to the society, but it is extremely difficult to weigh up one change against another.  If we look at wage data to assess the standard of living, the problem is that payment in kind is not recorded.  Agricultural workers for example, would be compensated for their low wages with farm produce, free fuel or subsidised rents, and wages only reflect the living standards of the employed.  A wider variety of sources need to be employed in looking at the standard of living debate, for example whilst working class in urban districts seem to have enjoyed higher wages, they also suffered higher rates of disease and mortality.

The roles of women and children drastically changed from working in cottage industries and agriculture to being employed in the factory system.   This problem was also added to by the age structure of the population with high birth rates, Peter Mathias, a secondary source writes,  “The conclusion (when looking at Gregory King’s population tables) is that a very high proportion of dependants existed at the same time as production and productivity was low.  A large family could only stave off want by child labour or poor relief.” (Peter Mathias (1969,p200) The First Industrial Nation).  It appears therefore that the family was dependant on the wages of the women and children for their survival.

A new work culture emerged, The Tyranny of the Clock: under the domestic system, workers could set their own pace and hours of work and but in the factory system workers were ruled by the dictates of the machinery and the factory owners.  We can look at a primary source which shows the working hours and conditions for a child in a factory in the late 1700’s.  Charles Aberdeen first started work in a cotton factory when he was twelve years old, he was sent to one in Hollywell by the Westminster Workhouse.  In 1832 he was sacked from a cotton Factory in Salford at age fifty three for signing a petition in favour of factory reform.  He was interviewed by  and his  Committee on 7th July 1832 when he told about life as a scavenger in the mill, and how he had to work under the machine whilst it was running.  In regard to the increase in machine technology Aberdeen states, “I have done twice the quantity of work that I used to do, for less wages. Machines have been speeded. The exertion of the body is required to follow up the speed of the machine.”  When asked about the effect of the factory labour on the children he says that:  “It has a remarkable effect. It causes a paleness. A factory child may be known easily from another child that does not work in a factory.  I have seen men and women that have worked in a factory all their lives, like myself, and that they get married; and I have seen the race become diminutive and small; I have myself had seven children, not one of which survived six weeks; my wife is an emaciated person, like myself, a little woman, and she worked during her childhood, younger than myself, in a factory.”  Aberdeen had spent 41 years working in the mill and had recently been sacked, therefore as a primary source it is biased as it is very personal but it is also dated and shows how one boy’s existence was never uncontrolled, by the workhouse and then the factory.  It also illustrates the death rates in children and the poor health of the factory children, although this could also be due to other factors such as the decrease in nutrition as the family structure changed and women were no longer available in the home to prepare time consuming food.

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When conditions in the factory are looked at from another primary source we see another very different viewpoint.  Andrew Ure in 1835 notes from his visit to a factory that “every member of the loom is so adjusted, that the driving force leaves the attendant nearly nothing at all to do, certainly no muscular fatigue to sustain, while it procures for him, good unfailing wages, besides a healthy workshop gratis.”  (Andrew Ure (1835, The Blessings of the Factory System) The Philosophy of Manufacturers)  In his writing Andrew Ure is writing from a very narrow viewpoint.  He fails to state ...

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